So I’m watching Trey The Explainer and he mentions this written language used by the Minoans called Linear A. It is related to and pre-dates Linear B. I love historical mysteries like this. Why? Because I love linguistics. I’ve talked about this previously a little when talking about my accent.
The Evolution Of Language
Languages have evolved over time and are still evolving. As an editor, I am in favor of embracing newly defined versions of languages specific to geographic locations and unique communities. By defining language systems and fighting to preserve, rather than erase them, we fight language extinction if only in the written form.
I recognize that this gets to be a tricky area because depictions of dialects within racial communities have had a strong tendency to be inappropriate. Period. This is why I think it’s important for the rules of any language to be set by native speakers, that way if someone is attempting to write in a specific way to represent a dialect they are doing so in a consistent manner that has been created accurately. Sadly, this is a very slow process. Linguistics research, in general, is slow. You can help by participating in Accent Tag!
Since languages are constantly evolving, written languages are evolving along side them when present. One of the most fascinating cases of language evolution to me is that of the evolution of alphabets representing sounds – whether they are complete syllables or individual vowels and consonants.
Linear A is the “undeciphered” ancient Minoan script that is similar to the later script known as Linear B.
Why Can’t We Use The Rules Of Linear B To Read Linear A?
Current interpretations of Linear A try to assume Linear B preserved the same rules. One of the issues I currently have with this assumption is that language evolution doesn’t mean that “shared phonetic symbols sound the same”.
In Europe, that’s not how phonemes translated to/from written languages worked – and there are letters that have fallen out of use in English and German since the rise of the printing press and Northern Renaissance. Then, during the Enlightenment some European dudes in really fancy pants decided lots of European languages needed to have defined grammar, structure, and spelling.
In China, this first started much earlier with printing presses (everyone knows Bi Sheng invented the first movable type printing press, right?) and was a constant battle between isolated populations with varying languages and the various national governments.
Standardizing languages doesn’t work out – but sadly, even La Francophonie often chooses to ignore basic human rights regarding autonomy and language preservation in favor of pretending that they do instead.
We can assume that as the language evolved into Linear B vowel shifts and consonant shifts happened, changing the assumed pronunciations for these symbols. Therefore, it’s an incorrect assumption to backward apply pronunciation and meaning since Linear B is a younger language. That’s like trying to read and understand Old English using the rules of Middle English.
How Would We Translate Linear A?
So what should we do instead? As with any problem, we have to establish what we know.
Well, we can’t look at anything Greek because genetic evidence suggests that the Minoans weren’t from Greece, rather they were from the East, meaning that the older language to look at would not be Indo-European.
After the fall of the Minoan Civilization, their culture, language, and genetics did merge with the Greek people.
They were seafaring traders that interacted with people living as far as the Iberian peninsula and Egypt. This provides us with some starting information to figure out a bit.
Another clue may be the unique behavior of the mathematical system that they used, that included a built in log scale. Mathematical systems can be a great indicator of the history and culture of a people because they develop out of necessity for explanation.
So what could Linear A’s parent be? Peter Z. Revezs seems to think it’s a shared ancestor of Hattic and Hungarian languages, making it a member of the Uralic language family. This also means we can use the algorithm developed in this paper to get more consistent translations with our growing set of written examples. Their consistency and applicability is compelling. What’s unique about this paper is that it examines only the linguistics using a computational approach and nothing having to do with DNA sequencing or the anthropological history of human remains. That said, more recent studies looking at the oldest remains of individuals come to similar conclusions. In fact, a number of individuals have now come to the same conclusions using vastly differing methods, but there’s still a significant amount of disagreement. […I do recommend reading that thread if you want an interesting source of entertainment and great laughs. There’s some incredible pettiness between researchers who can’t agree on anything and have absolutely no sense of what they look like to everyone watching. Have your popcorn ready.]
Why Is Linear A So Difficult To Crack?
If the Minoans were such prolific seafaring traders, why is it so hard to decipher their language when we are able to decipher Egyptian? Well, we don’t have a ton of writing samples.
We can also assume that Linear A was a language used by seafarers. These languages, such as English once the British decided they just had to colonize all the things, pick up words from other languages and evolve into variants at a much faster pace by forming pidgins with other languages along trade routes.
This means that whatever Linear A did originate from could be unrecognizable without seeing the in between pidgin forms that could be present at all of their trade locations and then building a linguistic timeline. We don’t have a large enough sample size for that. Hopefully, as we find more remnants of Minoan trading, most recently in places like France and Serbia, a timeline could develop to support or debunk the computational relationship to the Hattic language establishing it as a member of the Uralic language family.
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
The evolution of language matters because it’s one of the ways we can understand the evolution of the human brain and we can understand the things some cultures found important enough to write down. The written component of a language provides us with one small piece of the puzzle that is a dead language. The more we understand about how languages evolved, the more we can understand about contact between different human groups as well as how their civilizations were structured. Language provides huge insights into details about general views, such as the self and how one relates to past, present, and future.
All languages require the transmission of information from source to a receiver. This information must be encoded in some way. This information must then be passed to the recipient via a channel – such as a physical medium or sensory perception. This is the tricky part – if the recipient can’t decode the information effectively things can be problematic. We can’t decode Linear A, we can’t read things written in Linear A. To better talk about this I’m going to focus on language encoding because decoding is the reason why it’s all important.
We have 5 primary ways that we’ve communicated (encoded information) over time:
- Written Phonetic
- Signed Languages (Phonetic / Symbolic)
- Interpretive or Body Language
Okay, see? You’re not crazy for thinking emojis are a natural part of English. Illuminated manuscripts contained illustrations to complement or work in place of written words, occasionally, in line. Pictographs are some of the oldest forms of language we have if you don’t want to count early stone stippling forms that often predate full pictographs on some continents. We have absolutely no way of knowing how languages that use these symbolic languages pronounced their words and often the false assumption that they had simplistic language structures is made. Modern symbolic languages and improved understanding of language evolution has provided evidence that this is not the case. One of the problems with pictographic languages is that they rely on subjective interpretation to convey messages. This leads to opportunities for miscommunications and that’s how arguments get started over who sent who the wrong emoji and what it meant.
Purely spoken languages with no preservation disappear when the people do. This is why many indigenous languages are endangered, and why one of the only good things that came out of the messed up stuff those evangelical missionaries did during the colonization of the world was to come up with ways to translate the Bible into lots of indigenous languages. This didn’t save all indigenous languages and there are many that still need help to be preserved by supporting the sovereignty of these nations to teach public schools, print road signs, and write government documents, and have local media stations dedicate to indigenous languages. These methods have been used to save Welsh, Maori, and some indigenous languages here in the United States. I first learned about these efforts in 2006 when Congress passed the Esther Martinez Native American Language Preservation Act. This program runs out in 2024 and has not been enough, with many native speakers threatened now more than ever by SARS-CoV-2. When all innate speakers of a language die out, the reality is the language is gone forever, even if recordings and written documentation of the language remain. This is because a spoken language is more than just words. As previously mentioned in my post on accents, how a person sounds when they speak communicates information to the listener. With dead languages (no original speakers remaining) this information that could be compared to epigenetics in the sense that histone modification of gene expression is passed down through generations and can be traced through relatives based on their environmental exposures and life experiences. It’s weird.
Written phonetic languages are those that tell you exactly what they sound like. Or at least they try to. Vietnamese and Arabic are both great examples of a written phonetic languages. It’s important to note that not all languages will neatly fit into either a Written Phonetic language or a Pictographic language – Modern English and Japanese both doing great jobs of demonstrating this and Linear A is an additional example.
Spoken languages rely on body languages, subjective implication, and contextual interpretation for the full communication for information. Written phonetic languages, while preserving a bit more structural information about a language, without the other components provide the bare minimum regarding the information being conveyed. Subjective interpretation of written phonetic languages is something that requires…
An accidental study and total violation of human rights lead to the discovery that humans will always develop natural language when in a sufficiently socialized group, even if non-auditory. Natural signed languages do not naturally possess a phonetic linkage except in communities where there is full integration between auditory and non-auditory communicating communities.
Some phonetic signed languages are constructed languages. When I was a kid, I learned Cued Speech with a childhood friend. We didn’t really talk using words, instead relying on our own sign language I wish I remembered today. She used Cued Speech to learn how to use phonetic pronunciation in a speaking world and I used it for speech therapy.
Signed languages are distinguished from body language by the use of specific gestures with unique meanings and the defining unit features of a language required to designate grammatical rules. When a sign language dies with no record, much like a spoken language, it is considered a dead language and even the signed languages that American Sign Language was based on have now died.
Body language is the major component to the communication of language that is often left out. It’s the most subjective, easy to misinterpret, and complementary to spoken/phonetic language or signed languages. Body language can often be broken down into “universal” and “non-universal”.
Body language studies are fairly controversial and some of the best studies focus on the behaviors of non-human primate species. “Universal” body language seems to have some level of genetic predisposition and in neurotypical infants is among the first forms of language to be understood. This “universal” body language is considered easier for neurodiverse individuals to learn thanks to clear definitions.
“Non-universal” body language includes gestures that may fall into a scenario where gestures can represent a number of things depending on context related to a local region, spoken language, and a specific culture. This kind of body language is highly subjective and evolves (or becomes extinct) quickly. This kind of body language is the kind often related to miscommunication, misinterpretation, and culture shock. What may be polite to one person may be like slapping another person’s grandmother.
Linguistics Is More Complicated Than This
I don’t want anyone to be under the impression that this is all there is to linguistics. I have barely scratched the surface with the above introductions to inaccurate terms that are a bit friendlier to a non-jargon seeking audience. My interests tend to focus on the documentation of unique variants of languages and the cracking of written languages that are not yet understood so they can be decoded. If you’re interested in linguistics, you should read primary literature on these topics and consider getting involved in citizen science efforts such as the Accent Tag.
Language extinction hurts everyone. Because language gives structure to abstract experiences, loan words between languages allow for the expression of and adoption of words for human experiences that had not previously been given concrete language or attempts at understanding. That means that, in some regard, by preserving global language diversity, we have the ability to control our intellectual evolution.
I advocate for people to:
- Learn about threatened and endangered languages
- Learn the basics of linguistics
- Learn about language evolution, so it can be embraced and accepted
If you enjoyed this, please like, comment, and/or share – it helps me know which types of content my readers want to see.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my rambling about Linear A and linguistics today. Without you these would be bits of data floating around waiting to be accessed in that 1.2 petabytes we call the internet.